Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Men, Ageing, and Memory

I see that I began writing this post mid-to-late November. I ddn't think I'd been away quite so long, but it's been busy, as always . . .

I've squeezed some worthy reading into my days lately. Friday, with Pater away picking up our grand-daughter (we get to do a baby-sitting week, while her parents are away), with snow falling wetly outside, I stoked the fire and cuddled into my big green leather club chair to reread Kathleen Winter's Annabel, enjoying it at least as much as I did the first time -- although with some dismay at the idea of presenting some of its graphic images to my 1st-year class. Means to a worthwhile end, certainly, but it was more difficult than I'd remembered, and I'm sure some of them will be considerably challenged.

After working my way through those 450+ pages, I was surprised at my appetite for Julian Barnes' Sense of an Ending which I squeezed into Nola's naptimes as well as reading in the evening (our TV room doubles as guest bedroom, so her 2-year old bedtimes left long spans of reading time). Barnes' Booker-winning novel is a cunningly wrought, deceptively simple narrative, the confessional voice of its narrator, Tony, seductively reasonable. He's a much more self-aware (and self-deprecating) narrator than Victor of Rosecrans Baldwin's You Lost Me There but both narrators are concerned with the reliability of memory. Both are similarly in late 60s, examining a lifetime of relationships, confronting their own limitations. Victor seems less self-aware than Tony, less likeable even, and yet I became wary of Tony's confessional tone, his apparent transparent disclosure coupled with his controlling role in the narrative. Certainly, he seems to be as clueless as his once-upon-a-time love accuses him of being, but it's hard to tell if he's quite the blend of hapless victim and standup guy willing to accept responsibility for his shortcomings as he appears to be. I wonder, for example, if the distance between himself and his daughter couldn't be overcome with more sustained effort on Tony's part. Rather than complaining that she's making him wait 'til his grandson's old enough to watch soccer games with, perhaps if he insisted on showing up and being useful, engaged, and engaging, he'd close that gap. Similarly, rather than calling his ex-wife whenever he could benefit from her company whilst rather passively ignoring her hints at their holidaying together, he might reciprocate her helpfulness.

To add to those words from almost a month ago, I'll stir one more novel into the mix, another meditative, cleverly plotted confessional by a man in his late 60s looking back at his life: Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, translated by Anne Born. What serendipity that these three ended up in my reading life within months of each other -- they complement each other so wonderfully.  In all three, the narrators's movement in the present keeps pulling them back to the past, into which they spiral complexly, teasing readers with details about a mystery long obscured. Barnes' plotting is masterful; the mystery revealed finally continues to haunt, a lingering aftertaste that changes the reader's impression of the opening so that I want to go back and reread. Petterson's ending is also haunting but with even less resolution; so much is less revealed in this one, while so much resonates beyond the close.And while the plotting in Baldwin's novel is not quite as compelling, this promising debut captivates throughout and evokes the wisdoms and regrets of a still-vigorous but late-career man evaluating his relationships, loves, losses, and obsessions.

Each of the three also engage through descriptions of landscape, whether urban or East Coast beach town or remote cabin in a Nordic wood. And they all maintain a likeable, confessional, and thoughtful tone which successfully skirts the seductions of either nostalgia or melancholia.  I must admit that this tone does much to endear me to the three novels, in contrast to Ian McEwan's Solar or Howard Jakobson's The Finkler Question, which also situate accomplished older men in a position of evaluating their past. I do think that the five, collectively, form a productive hologram of this position, and would rather like to imagine a conversation between the five protagonists.

It's December 18th, as I write this, a week from Christmas, two weeks left to the year. I have at least another ten books read whose titles have not yet made it into this 2011 reading record, so I will close now, regretful, as always, of all that I haven't found time to say. Let me close with two exemplary passages from Out Stealing Horses, in the hope that they might tempt you to pick up your own copy.

Now I have a dishwashing sink like everyone else. I look at myself in the mirror above the sink. The face there is no different from the one I had expected to see at the age of sixty-seven. In that way I am in time with myself. Whether I like what I see is a different question. But it is of no importance. There are not many people I am going to show myself to, and I only have the one mirror. To tell the truth, I have nothing against the face in the mirror. I acknowledge it. I recognise myself. I cannot ask for more. (90)

AND THEN THIS passage, from the following page:

It is important not to be careless about supper when you are alone. It is easily done, boring as it is to cook for one person only. There must  be potatoes, sauce and green vegetables, a napkin and a clean glass and the candles lit on the table, and no sitting down in your working clothes. So while the potatoes are boiling I go into the bedroom and change my trousers, put on a clean white shirt and go back to the kitchen and lay a cloth on the table before putting butter into the frying pan to fry the fish I have caught in the lake myself. (91)
One last point: I should make a note that I read Sense of an Ending on my new KoboVox. And as much as I've come to appreciate some of the conveniences of an e-reader, I regret not having a physical copy of a book I admire. This will be a continuing problem for me, I know. I hope to find some time, eventually, to write about my response to the reading phenomenology involved in an e-reader (I have a 1st-gen Kobo and now a KoboVox), but that will have to wait until I win the Time Lottery . . . 


  1. I read Out Stealing Horses a while ago but still find aspects of it gnawing at me - even while I have forgotten much of what the plot was, the sense of solitude that the author evokes remains with me. My daughter-in-law thought it was terrific and said that it helps her to understand my Norwegian-American son. I'm guessing she means that being taciturn comes with the territory.
    I was looking forward to reading your comments on some of your other reading, but not all of the links are working (e.g., Let the Great World Spin and Hunger Games were both nonfunctional).

  2. Again, MJ, thanks for the comment, a thoughtful one. It's true that Stealing Horses is so evocative in creating a mood that even after the plot details are gone, it's easy to imagine that the impressions and sensations will persist. Would you agree with your DIL that one could generalize the protagonist's character to his nationality or do you think there's much that arises from his familial circumstances and the particular trauma he experiences (of his father's disappearance, his wife's death, etc.)

    As for the other links, I've fixed Let the Great World Spin and found that Hunger Games worked for me (might depend which one you clicked on).